Article by XIANEASE
We, your China-curious friends at Xianease, never stop being fascinated by things from abroad that are filtered through the prism of the Chinese language and culture. Many moons ago, we told you about how big companies like Starbucks and BMW have fashioned themselves to be more attractive to the Chinese; we’re going to be doing that again, but instead of focusing on big international brands themselves, we’re going to now be focusing on specific well-known products (in this case, junk food) and the meanings behind their Putonghua translations.
If you’re new to this game, you should first know that there are three basic ways to approach translating a brand into Chinese: creating a phonetic sound-alike, forgetting about sound-alikes and focusing on meaning, or being a hero and managing to do both at once. We’ll be going over all three.
METHOD1: SOUND – ALIKES
There’s a certain simplicity in making a product’s Chinese name homophonous. The new name is sure to be unique, but it could be hard to remember, or there could be too many characters (most good brands stick to three or fewer characters), or your invented name could have unintended and negative connotations (like when search engine Bing launched in China with a name that sounded like “illness”). However, there are lots of companies and products that have avoided these pitfalls and found success on Mainland shelves.
CHINESE: 百事 PINYIN: bǎi shì
Pepsi, the official drink of people who don’t think Coke is giving them Type-2 Diabetes fast enough, is a constant presence in convenience store coolers and fast food drink fountains in the Mainland. The characters in the Chinese name are simple: 百 means “one hundred” and 事 is often translated as “matter,” as in “有事” (“I have something to do”) or “没事” (“No problem”). Thus, its Chinese name remains a slanted cognate of its English name, as the two together aren’t exactly dripping with substance or meaning. On the other hand, it never stops being amusing to think of this as “100 Problems” Cola (which would explain why Jay-Z stopped at 99 Problems).
CHINESE: 品客 PINYIN: pǐn kè
There’s not a whole lot of cleverness inherent to Pringles’ Chinese name. It sounds close enough, but neither 品 (“product”) or 客 (“customer”) come close to describing its trademark of bizarrely uniform potato swooshes in a shipping tube. However, Pringles are a product ostensibly meant for customers so, in that respect, it’s an entirely apt name.
CHINESE: 乐事 PINYIN: lè shì
Lays is famous for its classic potato chips, but the Chinese characters in the translated name aren’t super descriptive. It starts with “乐” ( “enjoyable/pleasurable”) and ends, like Pepsi, with “事.” Translated more literally, it means “a fun thing.” It’s unclear how fun a potato chip can be on its own, but with the dozens of wild and wacky flavors lining supermarket shelves, it would appear that Lays is trying to be pleasurable to everyone under the sun (for real, who eats blueberry potato chips?).
CHINESE: 奥利奥 PINYIN:ào lì ào
Oreo’s Chinese sound-alike is pretty spot on (NB: most “r” consonants end up with “l” sounds in Chinese-language cognates, just like this). The characters involved don’t really have a lot of meaning, but the sound they make is pleasing and catchy, helping it to stick out in the minds of local consumers. If you’re interested though, Google translated the characters as “Oh! Profit! Oh!” which is probably what Oreo’s founders were saying when they realized they’d gotten away with ripping off Hydrox.
METHOD2: FOCUS ON MEANING
As we just demonstrated, even names focused on maintaining consistent verbal branding have to be cognizant of meaning. However, sometimes sound-alikes are more trouble than they’re worth, and a company will just throw out any notion of making a homophone and try to more directly tell Chinese consumers what they’re in for.
CHINESE: 三角巧克力 PINYIN: sān jiǎo qiǎo kè lì
MEANING: Triangle chocolate
First in this category is Swiss-born chocolate bar Toblerone. It’s primarily known for its distinctive shape, a ridge of triangular protrusions that make it look a lot like a saw made of chocolate. Localizers leaned into this notoriety, as 三角 (“triangle,” more literally “three angles”) and 巧克力 (the Putonghua borrow word for “chocolate”) couldn’t possibly be any more on-the-nose descriptive.
CHINESE: 绅士牌 PINYIN: shēn shì pái
While you might be familiar with Planters, the Chinese name might give you some pause. 绅士牌 means “gentleman”; what could possibly be gentlemanly about nuts? You might wrack your brain for hours wondering about that—then, just before the point of insanity, you remember Mr. Peanut, Planters’ perennial, monocle-wearing, one-percenter of a mascot. As far as peanuts are concerned, he seems to be the most gentlemanly of the bunch, so the name fits.
CHINESE: 趣多多 PINYIN:qù duō duō
Chips Ahoy’s Chinese name gets machine translated down to “fun.” While you’ll never hear a local utter these three syllables to describe something as being fun, this machine translation comes down to a certain interpretation of the characters involved. 趣 is somewhere in the ballpark of “interesting,” while 多多 would be “more and more.” It stands to reason that something more and more interesting could be described as “fun,” but it’s more likely that, as in its English name, this is a reference to all of the chocolate chips you’ll find embedded in one of their cookies.
BURGER KING WHOPPER
CHINESE: 皇堡 PINYIN:huáng bǎo
MEANING: Emperor burger
In an attempt to underline their claim as the king of all hamburgers, Burger King’s signature burger refers to itself as the “emperor burger.” 皇 means emperor and 堡 is part of 汉堡 (hàn bǎo, the borrow word for “hamburger”), though on its own堡 means “fortress” or “castle.” While it’s not directly referencing a large size like its English name, the Whopper, there is still a certain sense of largeness and grandeur in its Chinese translation.
MCDONALD’S BIG MAC
CHINESE: 巨无霸 PINYIN:jù wú bà
When asked to ponder the meaning of the Big Mac’s Chinese name, one of our Chinese staffers started laughing. “Every word means huge!” she said between laughs. There are a couple of fun ways to dissect this name, starting character-by-character: 巨 means “huge” or “giant,” 无 means “without” and 霸 has been used historically to mean “tyrant.” Altogether, this could be interpreted to mean “big without being tyrannical,” which one would suppose is a fair way to describe a Big Mac. Combined, the phrase just means “huge,” but is only understood nowadays in the context of fast food hamburgers.
METHOD3: DO BOTH
CHINESE: 多力多滋 PINYIN: duō lì duō zī
MEANING: More powerful, more nourishing
Food and beverages sold in the Mainland are often more successful when advertised for their ostensible health benefits, which makes it unsurprising that Doritos tries that angle with its Chinese name. Anyone who’s been sad or drunk enough to house an entire bag of Cool Ranch would tell you that Doritos neither make you feel powerful nor nourished, but it’s 2018 and big corporations are allowed to say whatever nonsense they want to consumers without repercussions, so triangle chips covered in orange sawdust are nourishing now. Big points for cleverness though.
CHINESE: 好时巧克力 PINYIN: hǎo shí qiǎo kè lì MEANING: Good times
There’s something classic and pure about Hershey’s milk chocolate—a sweet, no-frills treat that just about everyone enjoys year-round. Their Chinese name follows that idea, as I’m sure the people at Hershey’s would claim that any time is a good time for Hershey’s, or that any time can become a good time as long as there’s some Hershey’s around.
CHINESE: 巴黎水 PINYIN:bā lí shuǐ
MEANING: Paris water
Perrier is not made in Paris. Paris is essentially as far from Vergèze, the place where Perrier is bottled, as it can be while still being in France. However, this fancy sparkling beverage borrows the cachet of the City of Lights to better sell to Chinese consumers, who find Paris synonymous with romance and fanciness, and generally find France to be synonymous with Paris.
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